WACO, Texas -- Art Briles didn't shy away from the question:
Can one player change the image of the team?
"Looks like it," Baylor's coach said.
|Robert Griffin was 157 rushing yards shy of joining the 2,000/1,000-yard club as a freshman. (US Presswire)|
The goals aren't huge. Just get the Bears to their first bowl since 1994. A simple 6-6 season would do, but this is Baylor, which has alternated in and out as the Big 12's worst program. Playing in the brutal South Division tends to dim one's hopes before the ball is kicked.
But when Griffin arrived in January 2008 as a brash 17-year-old, there was hope. Before he took a snap, Griffin was the Big 12 400-hurdle champion and finished third in the event in the NCAAs.
Football might be the ultimate team sport, but Baylor is looking for Griffin to take the next step and drag it along with him. Coming off a 4-8 season, the program is tied with Duke for the longest bowl-less streak among BCS conference schools, 15 seasons.
Griffin, though, is as dynamic as the last 15 seasons have been bland. "I can't think of anybody who's kind of like me," Griffin said. "Even though Vince Young didn't bring his program back, he brought them to the top. I don't compare myself to Vince but he definitely did that for his team."
Actually Griffin does compare himself to Young (read below). So do a lot of other people.
Young had lots of All-American help. Even in the middle of another losing season, Griffin became that one-man team. The youngest starting quarterback in I-A (18 at the time) accounted for 28 touchdowns, falling 157 rushing yards short of being a 2,000-passing/1,000-rushing performer in his rookie season.
"I've drawn comparisons to a lot of people -- Vince [Young], [Michael] Vick, [Randall] Cunningham, [Donovan] McNabb," Griffin said. "You can see a little bit of my game in their games and their games in my game. It's that way with all athletic quarterbacks. In essence, it's just our game."
"It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach because I'm responsible for this guy," said left tackle Danny Watkins. "My God, he's a freak. I was playing with him and gave him a hug and he was rock hard, but I want to treat him like glass. It gives me a little incentive to throw another plate on the bench press."
Yes, Griffin's singular talent has gotten Baylor jumping again about football. There are banners of him all over campus. At this private, Baptist-affiliated school, he is the power and the light, athletically speaking.
"When you're walking around campus, you're like, 'There I am,'" Griffin said. "There's a lot of pressure on me."
Griffin came to campus conceding nothing. It was almost incomprehensible that senior Miami transfer Kirby Freeman started the 2008 season. By the fourth series, Griffin was playing and never gave up the job.
"I tell people I don't believe in seniority. When I came in, I didn't care. I was trying to be a starter," he said. "I wasn't going to sit back and let the seniors do what they wanted."
Griffin has since tempered that statement, knowing he was protected by an All-American at left tackle, Jason Smith, the second pick in the NFL Draft. The first thing Smith taught Watkins was to help Griffin up every time he hits the ground.
"Our best chance of winning was with him on the field," Smith said. "Anything can happen at the bottom of a pile."
You might have figured out by now that the kid quarterback doesn't lack for confidence. He chose to skip track this spring in order to train and bulk up for football. Then he watched with a little bit of jealousy as Nebraska's Adam Dailey won the Big 12 400 hurdles with a time almost 1.3 seconds slower than Griffin's in 2008.
"With that many more months of training, imagine what I could have done," said Griffin, who still thinks the 2012 Summer Games in London are a possibility. "It's definitely inside me. I think I can do it, even if I don't run until then. I set a lot of records when I was younger. I never hit a slump."
After 15 years of slumping at Baylor, one teenager might have the ability to back up that statement.